Ludovico Geymonat's materialism: Leopardi, Lenin, Timpanaro.
When approaching Geymonat's philosophy we should be aware that we are dealing (to borrow a term from Sergio Solmi, a Leopardi scholar) with a form of "thought in motion" ("pensiero in movimento") which does not shrink from tackling the notion of change. As early as 1931, Ludovico Geymonat (19081991) understood philosophy to be a form of "progress" ("progresso"), "life" ("vita"), and not as mere "static or dead contemplation." (1) Geymonat has always looked at change as a consistent and necessary evolution that follows on from the progress to which thinking leads us, which means "remaining loyal to the spirit of dispassionate criticism." (2) This is because "those who love consistency love sincerity," (3) i.e., sincerity of the most rigorous research. Indeed, it is thorough and honest criticism--his key characteristic--that we see emerging from his earliest writings. The tough questions that Geymonat singles out in the traditions within which he works are the focal point of his personal inquiry in an attempt to find viable solutions.
I do not intend to retrace here the main developments of Geymonat's philosophy. I will rather focus on how his conception of materialism came to be and how he formulated an original form of dialectic materialism. However, it would be impossible in this regard not to mention Neopositivism, a school of thought with which Geymonat will always be associated. Neo-enlightenment should not be neglected either, in that it is precisely from critical observations and continuous critical engagement with these two positions that Geymonat began to see materialism as a road that could be taken.
An analysis of the various phases in Geymonat's thought does more than lining up discrete elements, different visions and hard to fathom turning points. Rather, it identifies the critical junctures of a system of thought that grows constantly richer, more intricate and ever more complexus, i.e., bound together. The unifying thread is the problem of epistemology, at the heart of which lies the value of scientific knowledge and the attempt to establish a philosophy that adopts a cogently critical approach to the tradition of idealism and affirms the centrality of rationality.
Origins of the Materialist Phase in Geymonat's Thought
Geymonat's materialist phase took place in the 1970s and found expression above all in his Storia del pensiero filosofico e scientifico and in Scienza e realismo. However, such development cannot be separated from his formative period in the 1960s, or from the last twenty years of his activity, for which the materialist phase clearly constitutes the premise.
In Geymonat, materialism stems from the urgency of finding a line of inquiry that "interprets the objectivity of scientific knowledge while taking account of the historically relative and always modifiable nature of scientific results." (4) As an heir to Neopositivism and its logical rigour, and in defence of the requirements of reason, Geymonat saw that the attempt to turn the scientific method (and the resulting theories) into an absolute was undermining the historicity of science. As an heir to the Neo-enlightenment and a believer in practical reason, he regarded the reduction of science to a mere "technique of reason" as a serious limitation.
Geymonat strove therefore to reach a theoretical level that could provide a consistent and coherent solution to epistemological conflicts, at the same time saving and strengthening the theoretical elements that were heuristically fruitful and curbing what he identified as limiting factors. Geymonat did not wish to lose either the cognitive reach of science, or its historic tendency to incessantly transform itself. This is what spurred him to re-evaluate the conventionalism of scientific theories and identify the dogmatic components within Neopositivism. It is in the forge of the history of science, from a dynamic conception of scientific theories, that his original brand of dialectic materialism coupled with epistemological realism emerges.
Geymonat's interest in materialism began in 1946 with the essay "Materialismo e problema della conoscenza," (5) in which he criticized V. I. Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-criticism. (6) Although (as he writes), "since 1934-35 [I] had had the impression that Neopositivism did not take sufficient account of the reality of scientific research" or the consequent "enrichment of our knowledge of the world," (7) he was not immune to its influence. In fact, he had not yet disowned Neopositivistic dogmatism. Later on, it was precisely this dogmatism that made the materialist position unacceptable to him in its entirety. Although he agreed with the materialist "criterion of praxis," he also believed that the Empirio-criticist and Neopositivist separation between action and theory was a prejudice. In "Materialismo e problema della conoscenza" Geymonat did, however, leave a door open to materialism, while affirming the need to reform it so that it may distinguish itself more clearly from the "philosophies of identity," that is, from any (idealistic) philosophy that is based on the identity between real and rational.
One can see a progressive shift towards the materialist position in his voluminous Storia, especially the volumes V and VI. Particularly interesting are the introductions to these two volumes ("Dall'Ottocento al Novecento" and "Il Novecento") in which Geymonat, with his usual clarity and sincerity, sets out the main issues in the philosophical and scientific thought of two historical periods, as well as the tempting ideas that presented themselves along the way as possible solutions to the most pressing theoretical issues. In particular, the dialectic element appears in the introduction to the volume V. Geymonat's introduction begins by highlighting the "torment" ("travaglio") which afflicted scientific research at that time, due above all to the crisis of mechanism, and the fruitful role played in this context by the so-called "applied sciences," which resulted from the close link between science and technology, theory and praxis (Storia V, 8). Geymonat then stresses the debt owed mainly to mathematicians and physicists, but above all to methodologists, for the critical analysis and introduction "of the dialectic conception into the sciences, which led to new contacts between scientific knowledge and the philosophical conceptions of the world." (8) Geymonat stresses (and the reference is highly significant) that Friedrich Engels too had understood the relevance of the issue. The conception of science as "edifice," as something with a history of its own, leads to the "transition from a static vision of scientific knowledge to a dialectic one." (9) Geymonat then states that "not having yet assimilated this transition" constitutes the central "difficulty in the unification of the philosophicalhumanistic and the technical-scientific cultures," (10) whose separation was noticeable in his time and indeed still is today.
As previously mentioned, the direct reference to Engels is significant, especially when seen in relation to chapter XI of volume V, dedicated precisely to Engels's dialectic materialism which Geymonat regards now as a possible solution to the "debate between materialism, mechanism, agnosticism, and evolutionism, and in the relationship between philosophy and science." (11) Geymonat's assessment of Engels does not shy away from highlighting the latter's limitations. He certainly agrees with the broadening of the concept of historicity to mean "the demystification of scientific absoluteness, as well as historic and civil absoluteness." (12) This demystification is made possible by applying the dialectics of reality to the dialectics of knowledge. He also accepts (in line with Lenin's critique of Ernst Mach) that abandoning mechanist materialism altogether is tantamount to total rejection of the materialistic solution, including its dialectic persuasion. However, guided by his critical and investigative eye, Geymonat also points out that Engels did not grasp the importance of mathematics, and his three dialectical laws (the quantitative changes turning into qualitative changes, the unity and conflict of opposites, and the negation of negation) are based on inadequate demonstrations and an excessively rigid logic. Engels's weaknesses are due to his training in Hegelian philosophy and also to the fact that Engels's primary objective was to attack mechanism, each of the three laws serving to demolish one of its pillars. However, Geymonat's overall verdict is that Engels achieved important results in terms of both his critique of mechanism and his "preliminary draft of a dialectic conception of nature." (13) The chapter concludes with some reflections on dialectics that are extremely relevant for our analysis of materialism. Indeed, Engels described dialectics as the only way to understand the process of Becoming, since it does not see facts as purely random events and is moreover capable of reconciling the abandonment of dogmatism with the affirmation of the value of science against sceptical relativism, or, in Geymonat's words, "agnosticism."
The introduction to volume VI, on the twentieth century, highlights the fulcrum of Geymonat's thinking at that time even more clearly, insofar as it provides a better understanding of the reasons that first led him to materialism. First of all, Geymonat identifies epistemology as the key issue for understanding twentieth century thought. The reasons for this choice, which (as the philosopher himself admits) could have easily fallen on political economy, lie in the growing importance of scientific knowledge and the continued scarcity of "truly satisfying critical literature." (14) The introduction also contains a direct reference to Lenin and his Materialism and Empirio-criticism, described as an important work in the field of epistemology that has not yet received due attention. The relationship with Lenin's thought is clarified here, consistently and with intellectual honesty, but it is dealt with at length in chapter IV, which is dedicated to a thorough assessment of Lenin and his ideas.
In the initial part of volume VI, Geymonat addresses two "temptations" that might dazzle those who struggle with the complications that intervened in the field of knowledge following the crisis of positivism. The first temptation is irrationalism; it entails the repudiation of reason and the flight to its opposite, in the conviction that it is possible to obtain absolute knowledge of reality by intuitive acts. The second temptation is methodological; it is even more seductive in that it stems from the urgency of real epistemological problems and seeks to refute irrationalism. In referring to Neopositivism or logical empiricism, Geymonat points out that while on the one hand it does not recognize any knowledge beyond what is rational (and that it stresses the requirements of reason, the search for clarity, and the rejection of all unverifiable arguments), on the other hand it risks creating "a wall of fog" ("un velo di nebbia," Storia VI, 17) by reducing philosophy to mere methodology. These two temptations, namely, irrationalism and logical empiricism, represent the culmination of a dramatic problem that can however be resolved by reconciling the relativity and historicity of knowledge with its objective value. This reconciliation must take account of the relationship between human beings and nature (though such a relationship is understood quite differently from its traditional conception). At the same time, one cannot neglect the teachings of the Enlightenment and the nature of philosophical discourse. However, Geymonat now sees materialism as the platform that will reconcile this duplicity of elements, and such Materialism cannot ignore the teaching of Lenin.
Chapter IV, "Lenin: la battaglia del marxismo a favore di una concezione realistica del mondo" ("Lenin: The Battle of Marxism Toward a Realistic Assessment of the World") goes to the heart of Geymonat's relationship with the Russian author and consequently enables us to move from volume VI of Storia to Scienza e realismo, in which Geymonat's position on the "Marxist battle" is expressed explicitly.
After a specific analysis of Lenin's life and writings, Geymonat takes one of Lenin's claims as a jumping-off point for a series of general considerations on the latter's philosophy. The sentence in question comes from Lenin's 1920 review to the Austrian journal Kommunismus in which he refers to "the living soul of Marxism--a concrete analysis of a concrete situation" (Kommunismus 166). The relevance of Lenin's quote is both philosophical, in that it precludes "any temptation to transform historic materialism into a philosophy of history," (15) and political, in that it warns against the claimed metahistorical validity of institutions. It is a statement that goes to the heart of the interdependence between theory and practice and confirms Lenin's continuity with Marx and Engels, albeit in a different historical and cultural context, no longer struggling against mechanism but against irrationalism, agnosticism, and fideism. Unlike many other critics--and this can also be seen in the chapter on Engels in volume V--Geymonat never seeks to hide his relationship with Engels "as if it were a stain" ("come se fosse una macchia" 101), and acknowledges the German philosopher's achievement in bringing together dialectics and the historicity of science.
In the specific paragraph on Materialism and Empirio-criticism, Geymonat stresses the theoretical meaning of this important work, which harshly criticises those who believe that they could "complete Marx" via reactionary ideals. For Lenin such notions were idealistic mystifications. Geymonat then condenses Lenin's statements into five central questions.
First of all, Lenin points out that thanks to dialectics, the crisis of the sciences, which he also acknowledges, need not lead to relativism. Secondly, Lenin's distinction between the phenomenist and the dialectic philosopher is crucial. The phenomenist places consciousness, "as it is, invariable" ("bell'e fatta e invariabile," Storia VI, 108) at the centre of everything, while the dialectic philosopher is engaged in a continuous struggle to perfect knowledge. The third point of importance for Geymonat is Lenin's frequently expressed desire to distinguish between his version of materialism and mechanist or naive materialism, characterized by a rigid conception of the truth that is attributed to knowledge. The fourth point is that materialist realism is also different from the Kantian conception of the thing in itself, in that it modifies the concept of the cognitive limit, making it no longer absolute. Thus, although the thing in itself remains beyond the perception of the senses, the advance of knowledge can still take us closer to it. As the fifth and final element, Geymonat mentions Lenin's conception of matter, which, while remaining primary and independent from the subject, is nonetheless reflected dynamically in sensations.
Lenin was now to constitute one of the main points of reference in the elaboration of Geymonat's own materialist-realist solution. After an initial treatment in "Attualita del materialismo dialettico" (1974), the choice toward Leninist materialism emerges, especially in Scienza e realismo (1977), where Geymonat in the first pages lists the thinkers to whom he feels he is closely but not uncritically related: obviously Lenin's dialectic materialism, but also the Neopositivists, particularly Moritz Schlick and some post-neopositivists such as Gaston Bachelard, Willard V. O. Quine, Karl Popper and Imre Lakatos. In explicit reference to Lenin, Geymonat also explains his use of the term "realism." It includes those conceptions that "admit--in one form or the other --the existence of something, i.e., reality that cannot be reduced to our cognitive acts, although it is revealed by them." (16) In his use of the term "realism," Geymonat reverses Lenin's choice in Materialism and Empiriocriticism, in which the author preferred the word materialism to realism, a term that according to Lenin had been "bedraggled by the positivists" (Materialism and Empirio-criticism 54). However, given the different historical and philosophical conditions, Geymonat opts for realism instead, less frequently used and having fewer confusing associations ("materialism" could imply naive philosophical positions or dogmatism). Despite the dissimilarities, Geymonat finds much common ground with Lenin. By presenting himself neither as "Lenin's faithful follower nor his heir," (17) he stresses the need to analyze dispassionately Lenin's views on epistemology, which have too often been neglected by Western philosophers, especially Italians.
Having retraced the genesis of Geymonat's materialism via the analysis of his relationship with Engels and Lenin, it is now necessary to clarify Geymonat's overall position within the history of Italian materialism. To that extent it will be necessary to establish a comparison with two other Italian materialist thinkers, namely, Giacomo Leopardi and Sebastiano Timpanaro.
Italian Materialism: A Hidden River of Thinkers
Leaving aside criticisms that can be raised here and there, Geymonat's perspective is of fundamental importance to the history of contemporary Italian thought. The materialism it expresses is directly opposed to the predominant idealist, neo-idealist--and frequently irrationalist--current in Italian philosophy. In my view however, Geymonat's materialist realism makes him part of an underground river of Italian thinkers who argue the basic unacceptability of mystifications and rigidly absolute solutions.
It is therefore of primary importance to link the specific characteristics of Geymonat's thinking to the early nineteenth century materialism of Giacomo Leopardi and the much more recent materialism of Sebastiano Timpanaro. Such a comparison between two twentieth-century authors and one of the nineteenth century, with their widely differing contexts, viewpoints, backgrounds, interests and fields of work, can be fruitful if seen in critical and issue-oriented terms.
By conjuring up this ideal, but definitely not idealist, panel of materialists, I intend to focus on the debate over three issues they had in common: what is the nature of materialism, how can human knowledge be described, and what vision of the world emerges from the relationship between the matter of which human beings are made and the matter of which nature is made.
We know of no other way [to perish] but this; but equally we know of no other way of being but that of matter.
(Leopardi, Zibaldone 629) (18)
Geymonat sets out the characteristics of his own materialism in a clear and detailed manner mainly in Scienza e realismo. We have already mentioned how in the book's premise the author explains his reasons for choosing the term realism over materialism. Geymonat seeks also to avoid possible confusion and distinguishes between his position and that of naive realism, which posits
the existence of a reality that transcends knowing subjects, that is, it transcends the world of phenomena or the world of our perceptions in two ways: because it is their ontological ground , and because one must start from perceptions in order to know it .
(Scienza e realismo 56) (19)
As for the first way, Geymonat points out that we can only speculate about the existence of another reality beyond the subject, since it is impossible to codify the specific relationship between perceptions and external reality. After Kant, we can no longer accept the classic causal relationship. Indeed, since "cause" is a category, it can only be applied to phenomena.
On the other hand, the second way of looking at the connection between perceptions and reality implies the possibility of moving from the plane of subjective consciousness to reality itself, and for Geymonat this is impossible to demonstrate, since every attempt to abstract from either specific qualities or the whole is destined to fail. The philosophical trend that has contributed most to the abandonment of naive realism is conventionalism, aware as it was that the principles governing specific sectors of reality are of a revisable nature, since they are not "absolute truths but the fruit of reflection about certain fields of experience." (20)
In Scienza e realismo, realism is painstakingly set apart from its naive counterpart. Also, the characteristics of reality as existing beyond our perceptions are carefully outlined, without, however, attempting to describe reality's material nature. The materialist is actually something more than a realist in that he or she sees matter, like Lenin, as "primary," while "sensation, thought, consciousness are the supreme product of matter organized in a particular way" (Materialism and Empirio-criticism 48). The materialist also recognizes, in the words of Timpanaro,
the priority of nature over "mind," or if you prefer, of the physical level over the biological level, and of the biological level over the socio-economic and cultural level. This priority should be understood both chronologically (the very long time which supervened before life appeared on earth, and between the origin of life and the origin of man), and in terms of the conditioning power which nature still exercises on man and will continue to exercise at least for the foreseeable future.
(On Materialism 34)
This recognition does not, however, make Timpanaro a "vulgar" or "unsophisticated" materialist. His position is shared by Geymonat, but not with equal vehemence in all his works from the materialist period. It is affirmed in the conclusion to volume VI of Storia, but not to the same degree in Scienza e realismo, whose primary objective is to seek a coherent plan that would join the "revisability" of scientific knowledge together with its cognitive validity--a solution Geymonat identifies in dialectic realism and in the conception of science as "technical-scientific heritage" ("patrimonio scientifico-tecnico" Scienza e realismo 33).
As for Leopardi, he is definitely a realist. In his view of the cognitive process, the subject appeals to a reality that exists independently of his or her perceptions and is also very much a materialist in that he recognises matter as the primary element. As we read in his Zibaldone di pensieri, "our minds are incapable, not just of knowing, but even of conceiving of anything beyond the limits of matter" (21) and "the limits of matter are the limits of human ideas." (22) In Leopardi too the materialist choice is the outcome of an evolutionary process and a lifelong search. His Zibaldone chronicles the disintegration of what may metaphorically be described as the graphical user interface of human thought, which leaves the readers face to face with an intricate web of reasoning, reflections, readings, poetic images and analyses: the raw data used by the processor as it were. The Zibaldone makes the process completely clear to the reader: it is like a fire, constantly fuelled by the most varied studies and copious readings, that radically transforms itself as it burns, and the thought and soul of its author with it. In his youth, or one might even say his childhood, Leopardi had been faithful to the dogmas of the church, of political conservatism and literary academia, in accordance with the education his parents gave him. Subsequently, after he moved from philological studies to the "beauty" of poetry, and from poetic "beauty" to the "truth" of philosophy, he came to formulate a materialist, atheistic philosophy from which there was no escape.
The most effective formulations of Leopardi's materialism are those that recognise that our faculties do not exist without the concourse of matter. Leopardi seeks to demonstrate the link between thought and matter with reference to some of matter's properties (not fully explained at the time) including elasticity, electricity, and forces of attraction. That these properties were not universal did not weaken their association with matter. Leopardi does not deny the existence of our faculties; he rather declares that it is utterly absurd to think of them as separate from the organized and specific matter that produces them. In 1827 he stated that
matter that has thinking capability is regarded as a paradox [...]. That matter thinks is a fact. A fact, because we think; and we do not know, we cannot know, we cannot conceive of anything except matter. A fact, because we see that the modifications of thought depend totally on sensations, on our physical state; and that our soul corresponds entirely to the variety and variations of our body. A fact, because we feel our thinking with our body: each of us perceives that thought is not in one's arm or one's leg; each of us perceives that one thinks with a material part of oneself, that is, with one's brain, just as one is aware of seeing with one's eyes, of touching with one's hands. [...] that to believe in thinking matter (materia pensante) is to posit nothing strange or sophisticated or recondite, but on the contrary is to posit the obvious, something dictated by nature, the most natural and obvious thing about matter that one could say; perhaps men's conclusions on this subject would be different from what they are, and the profound  spiritualist philosophers of this and past epochs would have found and would find a lot less difficulty and absurdity in materialism.
(Zib. 4288-89) (23)
The materialism of Sebastiano Timpanaro, an acute scholar of Leopardi who, together with Cesare Luporini and Walter Binni and more recently Antonio Prete and Luigi Blasucci, helped sweep away all the interpretative cliches and highlight the philosophical force of Leopardi's reflections, is both Marxist-Engelsian and Leopardian. In his "Dialogo sul materialismo," a conversation with Fabio Minazzi, Timpanaro recalls that his passion for philosophy derived from the long discussions with his father Sebastiano, a left-wing idealist, who defended, and with reason, "the full cognitive value of science regardless of Benedetto Croce's reduction of it to a 'pseudo-concept,'" while at the same time remaining "true to idealism" ("dentro all'idealismo"). (24)
This idealism, however, soon became unacceptable to the younger Timpanaro, who saw it as a "form of religion albeit immanent." (25) Gradually, he came to embrace materialism as a rejection of all forms of "'Providence,' even in the history of mankind," (26) and the denial of any comforting but artificial escape route--whether it be religious, idealist, or even Marxist--that adopted a dialectic and "providential vision of history, of evil as a negative element destined to resolve itself in a greater good." (27) In Timpanaro, the unfolding of history cannot be enmeshed in any codified logic, since it entails travelling through rugged terrain full of deviations, short-cuts, blocked roads and dead ends, "unmitigated losses" ("perdite secche") as he defines them, with no possibility of sublation. His materialism looks back to Leopardi's determination to avoid easy answers and convenient ways out, as well as his refusal to explain the world with reference to anything outside it, and respond to evil with consolatio theologiae orphilosophiae.
In Sul materialismo, Timpanaro affirms that materialism is the recognition by human beings of their animal nature and their marginality in the universe, but also of their primary needs, first among which is the need for happiness. And it is for this reason that Timpanaro links Marxist-Engelsian materialism with Leopardi, in the awareness that the "social human being"--with all the specific characteristics that this phrase entails--exists alongside the "biological human being," subject to instincts, diseases, development, and death. To separate the one from the other is tantamount to dimidiating the human being. The resulting materialism would risk opening the door to idealism every time one is unable to explain the reality from within the "artificial terrain of society," as Labriola would call it.
(Essays 217) (28)
The process of analysing an argument in depth makes use of a great variety of approaches: analysis, synthesis, generalisation, specifics, now the boldest analogies, now the search for precise differences between apparently very similar cases. To try to impose pre-set rules on this process would be futile.
(Geymonat, Scienza e realismo 70) (29)
When does an idea increase our knowledge of reality? According to Geymonat, it is not sufficient to guarantee the internal consistency of a theory, since some kind of reference to reality and praxis is also necessary. As Geymonat argues in Scienza e realismo, praxis leads to objective results but does not automatically endow them with absolute relevance. However, since truth and practical success are inseparable, the results maintain "dialectical unity between theory and practice." (30) Their cognitive value is not denied, even though they do not lead to absolute conclusions. Realism is indeed the criterion that distinguishes Geymonat's position from both conventionalist and Neopositivist visions of science. How then does knowledge proceed? An increase in our knowledge necessarily entails going "beyond something" what we knew before. In fact, it means proceeding by successive levels. Is it possible to describe the way this succession takes place? After analyzing the solutions proposed by Galilei (by successive accumulations, where new knowledge does not modify previous results), Pierre-Simon de Laplace (a dynamic vision, conditioned, however, by the limits to our intelligence), and Felix Klein (from an initially narrow theory which is expanded in accordance with the principles of geometry), Geymonat claims that it is not possible to explain the development of knowledge in terms of rigid logic or a single methodology.
A merely logical-rational reconstruction of science is therefore impossible, but neither can Geymonat be satisfied with Popper's audacious conjectures and rigorous refutations, Thomas Kuhn's alternation between periods of dogmatism and crisis, and Lakatos's description of "research programmes" as a "succession of theories." Scientists should broaden their own personal "theoretical disposition" ("disposizione teorica," Scienza e realismo 90) in order to proceed in accordance with a more flexible type of rationality, one that makes use of dialectics. According to Geymonat, the dialectic method finds its proper application in processes that are assumed to be dynamic and not axiomatic. As Popper himself demonstrates in his essay, "What Is Dialectic?," whose conclusions Geymonat shares, dialectic method is quite different from dialectic logic (rigidly triadic in Hegel and even more so in Engels). Dialectics' most relevant trait is the dynamic fluidity in which a variety of factors comes into play and in which contradictions may even coexist. Such dialectics can be a tool for studying the history of science, which must not be treated as a constellation of theories but as the already mentioned "technical-scientific heritage" ("patrimonio scientifico-tecnico"). This heritage--a crucial concept for Geymonat--is fundamentally historic, multiple and unitary at the same time, and is constantly enriched not only by the successes of theories, but also by their failures. Its progress is marked by an "unlimited succession of probings" ("successione illimitata di approfondimenti," Scienza e realismo 72), which need not be unambiguously codified as elements in continuity or in contrast between themselves. In the course of the process, theory and practice must be continuously reassessed in the light of each other. In Geymonat's dialectic realism the validity of the formal logic that subsists within individual scientific theories is not annulled. However, it cannot be applied to the history of science, since it would constrain reality into a rigid system and would not adequately explain how progress itself comes about.
If we now go back to Leopardi, we see that he too asks how human beings can know reality. The instrument at their disposal is reason, but it is not an omnipotent reason, able to reach absolute truths. Leopardi affirms
the absolute and essential impotence of reason, not just in terms of human happiness [...] but the faculty of reasoning and conceiving itself. [.] Our faculty of reasoning is correct and capable of truth when it limits itself to the order of things that we know or can know [...]. I do not seek to destroy any of the principles of human reason [...]: I merely point out that they are not absolute but relative to our order of things.
(Zib. 1642) (31)
Indeed, for Leopardi the understanding of all the "faces" of Nature ("facce," as he frequently defines the complexity of reality) requires more than reason alone. (32) The cognitive process must be combined with imagination; to know nature with cold reason alone is to treat it as a "dead body" ("corpo morto," Zib. 3239) cut it up and put it back together, without considering that there is something else at stake. As a matter of fact,
neither medicine, nor physiology, nor physics, nor chemistry, nor any other science (not even the most exact and closest to matter) which deals with the most sensitive and least abstruse parts and effects of nature, can ever determine or calculate, even approximately, if not extremely imprecisely, either the number or the degree or the long and the short, or any of the relationships etc. of the infinite diversity of effects which, depending on the infinite combinations and exchanges etc. and influences and reciprocal passions etc., result from even the simplest, fewest and most limited causes that those sciences allow for.
(Zib. 3977) (33)
Such considerations lead to a non-absolute conception of truth and the historicity of scientific conquests. The theories and elaborations produced by human beings cannot lead to the ultimate truth and, as Leopardi repeats in the Zibaldone, "the next century will probably question what in this century we consider to be certain." (34) This is not the result of glib relativism. Theories are subject to the conditions of their time, to culture and progress. Even the Newtonian system, still accepted unreservedly in Leopardi's day, was beginning to crumble, since it was "anything but certain or perfect; on the contrary it is acknowledged to be defective in some parts, and is even beginning to vacillate in the schools." (35)
In the context of an essay on Lenin and Karl Korsch, Sebastiano Timpanaro highlights the relationship between knowledge and action, pointing out that "materialism is much more than a gnoseological theory" (On Materialism 249). It is also linked to praxis, in the attempt to transform reality in a concrete manner. And elsewhere in the same volume, in a discussion on epistemology and the concept of experience, Timpanaro observes that the process of knowledge necessarily implies a passive component, given
the external situation which we do not create but which imposes itself on us. [...] This emphasis on the passive element in experience certainly does not claim to be a theory of knowledge--something which in any case can be constructed only by experimental research on the physiology of the brain and the sense organs, and not by merely conceptual or philosophical exercises. But it is the preliminary condition for any theory of knowledge which is not content with verbalistic and illusory solutions.
(On Materialism 34)
This passive quid, the "given" from which we cannot detach ourselves, shows how illusory and anti-scientific the absolute cognitive liberty of human beings really is, though this does not reduce the activity of the subject to zero. In addition, and as it is stated in the final part of the previous quote, a theory of knowledge requires a concrete approach to the matter that produces it, and that matter is limited by the brain's anatomical and physiological structures, with all its possible impediments and degenerations. Scientific knowledge, which is the only rigorous knowledge of reality, leads us to acknowledge the marginality of human beings in the universe: the "object" existed for a long time before being studied by the "subject," which is structurally conditioned with respect to reality. In Timpanaro's view, this is not trivial mechanist reductionism. It is precisely in scientific knowledge that materialists find the most refined and modern transformations of idealism, including the attempt to drag scientific knowledge out of its historic dimension and separate it from human sciences.
The World: The Relationship between Matter-as-Nature and Matter-as-Human-Beings
Man as a biological being, endowed with a certain (not unlimited) adaptability to his external environment, and with certain impulses towards activity and the pursuit of happiness, subject to old age and death, is not an abstract construction, nor one of our prehistoric ancestors, a species of pithecanthropus now superseded by historical and social man, but still exists in each of us and in all probability will still exist in the future.
(Timpanaro, On Materialism 45)
In Geymonat's Scienza e realismo there is a chapter, "Natura e uomo" ("Nature and Man"), on the need to return to the subject of nature, albeit in quite different terms from past traditions. The classic concept of natural order, whose laws are objective and absolute or even divine, is no longer acceptable. Nature and thus reality itself can be read as rational, but it is a different kind of rationality, fluid and dynamic, not rigidly ordered and classifiable--in a word, dialectic. The truths science discovers necessarily reflect this reality, but even though we are not obliged to consider them absolute, it does not mean that they cannot be endowed with some degree of relative truth. There is nothing anthropocentric about the place of human beings within such a vision of nature: the universe existed, and will continue to exist, even without human beings.
For Leopardi too, human beings have no privileged role to play in the universe. Nature (without detailing the evolution of Leopardi's views on the concept) is indifferent to the acts performed by and upon human beings. Leopardi's cosmic pessimism, as it is traditionally referred to, is due to the discovery that evil and disorder are not the fruit of progressive degenerations, but are constituent parts of order itself: "souffrance" is in the "garden." (36) Human beings can never escape their natural condition, and neither can anything else that exists.
As Timpanaro argues, Leopardi's pessimism is neither "resigned" nor "Buddhist" like Arthur Schopenhauer's, but true, all-encompassing pessimism, since Leopardi never shuts himself away in his tower, detaching himself from the world and ignoring it. On the contrary, reality and people, which he observes both as a poet and a philosopher, are the unceasing object of his inquiry and the source of his inspiration. Human beings occupy a marginal place in the universe, yet their being part of nature cannot be overlooked. The core of materialism would be lost if society would be the only acceptable venue of discourses. Although it remains intertwined with the social and cultural dimension, the mannature relationship cannot be denied since nature is not only the object of human labour and human cognitive inquiry but it also "acts" continuously (without being in any way personified, obviously) on a biological level. Antonio Labriola, whom Timpanaro quotes frequently, also argues that
[m]en, living socially, do not cease to live also naturally. They are certainly not bound to nature as are animals, because they live on an artificial terrain [...]. But nature is always the immediate subsoil of the artificial terrain of society, and is the ambience which envelops us all. Technique has interposed modifications, diversions and attenuations of natural influences between ourselves as social animals and nature; but it has not thereby destroyed their efficacy, which on the contrary we experience continuously. Just as we were born naturally male and female, die nearly always in spite of ourselves, are dominated by a reproductive instinct, so we also bear within our temperament specific conditions, which education in the broad sense of the word, or accommodation to society, may certainly modify within limits, but can never eliminate. These conditions of temperament, repeated in many individuals and developed through many individuals over the centuries, constitute what is called ethnic character. For all these reasons, our dependence on nature, however diminished since prehistoric times, persists amidst our social life; as does the matter for curiosity and fantasy furnished by the spectacle of nature itself. (37)
Timpanaro approaches texts as a critical philologist, without shying away from criticising and taking them apart. He does not propose to abandon Marxist analysis and its concept of superstructure, but he stresses that in no way does this nullify the biological nature, the animality of human beings. As Timpanaro himself has declared, these conclusions are indebted to his study of Leopardi, whose speculations compensate Marx's neglect of nature and human beings' need for happiness. As Leopardi argues,
the human spirit always makes progress, but slowly and by degrees. When it finds out about some great truth that demonstrates the falsehood of widespread and long- standing opinions--a truth whose discovery would mean a great leap forward in the state of knowledge--most people refuse to admit it, placidly following their own little journey, until they arrive at that truth of their own accord. No truth of this sort ever becomes widely accepted, except long after it was demonstrated, even geometrically."
(Zib. 1729) (38)
Progress always follows a tortuous path, at times on the surface and at times sinking below it, running in underground rivers and through thinkers that refuse to conform to the dominant context. By focusing on this unique lineage (Leopardi, Timpanaro, Geymonat)--without attempting to assimilate the three of them into a uniform whole, minimizing their differences, or ignoring their specific historical and personal characteristics--we hope to have provided a much needed reappraisal of a significant, albeit often marginalized legacy of Italian thinking.
(Translated by George Metcalf)
Bellone, Enrico, Ludovico Geymonat, Giulio Giorello, and Silvano Tagliagambe. Attualita del materialismo dialettico. Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1974.
Geymonat, Ludovico. Del marxismo. Saggi sulla scienza e il materialismo dialettico. Ed. Mario Quaranta. Verona: Bertani, 1987.
--. Il problema della conoscenza nel positivismo. Torino: Bocca, 1931.
--. Scienza e realismo. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1977.
--. Storia del pensiero filosofico e scientifico. 7 vols. Milano: Garzanti, 1970-1976.
--. Studi per un nuovo razionalismo. Torino: Chiantore, 1945.
Labriola, Antonio. Essays on the Materialist Conception of History. Trans. Charles H. Kerr. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966.
--." Del materialismo storico: dilucidazione preliminare, X." Saggi sul materialismo storico. Ed. Valentino Gerratana and Augusto Guerra. Roma: Editori Riuniti, 1964 75-167.
Lenin, Vladimir Il'ic Ul'janov. "Kommunismus. Journal of the Communist International" (Review). Collected Works. Vol. 31. 4th English Edition. Trans. Julius Katzer. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965: 165-67.
--. Matyerializm i empiriokrititsizm. Moscow: Zveno, 1909.
--. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Trans. A. Fineberg. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1947.
Leopardi, Giacomo. Zibaldone di pensieri. 3 vols. Ed. Giuseppe Pacella. Milano: Garzanti, 1991.
Minazzi, Fabio. La passione della ragione. Studi sul pensiero di Ludovico Geymonat. Milano: Thelema, 2001.
--, and Sebastiano Timpanaro. "Dialogo sul materialismo." Marx centouno. New Series 8. 4 (February 1991): 99-112.
Popper, Karl R. "What is Dialectic?" Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963. 312-35.
Timpanaro, Sebastiano. Antileopardiani e neomoderati nella sinistra italiana. Pisa: ETS, 1982.
--. La filologia di Giacomo Leopardi. Roma: Laterza, 1997.
--. On Materialism. Trans. Lawrence Garner. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1975.
--. Il verde e il rosso. Scritti militanti 1966-2000. Ed. Luigi Cortesi. Roma: Odradek, 2001.
(1) "[...] contemplazione statica e morta," Il problema della conoscenza VII. If not otherwise indicated, all translations from the Italian are by the essay's translator.
(2) "[...] rimanere fedele allo spirito critico piu spregiudicato." Minazzi, La passione della ragione 294.
(3) "[...] chi ama la coerenza ama la sincerita." Geymonat, Studi 340.
(4) "[...] interpreti l'oggettivita del sapere scientifico senza dover rinunciare al carattere storicamente relativo e sempre modificabile degli stessi risultati della scienza." Minazzi, La passione della ragione 190.
(5) This article first appeared in Rivista di filosofia, XXXVII (1946) and was reprinted in Geymonat, Del marxismo 245-69.
(6) Matyerializm i empiriokrititsizm, 1909. All quotations from this work are from the 1947 English translation.
(7) "[...] fin dal 1934-1935 avess[i] l'impressione che il neopositivismo non tenesse sufficientemente conto dell'effettiva realta della ricerca scientifica [e del conseguente] arricchimento della nostra conoscenza del mondo." Scienza e realismo 8.
(8) "[...] della concezione dialettica nelle scienze che porto a nuovi contatti tra sapere scientifico e le concezioni filosofiche del mondo." Storia V, 16.
(9) "[...] trapasso da una visione statica ad una visione dialettica del sapere scientifico." Storia V, 16.
(10) "Non aver ancora assimilato tale trapasso [costituisce la centrale] difficolta di unificazione tra le due culture, quella filosofico-umanistica e quella tecnico scientifica." Storia V, 16.
(11) "[...] dibattito tra materialismo, meccanicismo, agnosticismo, evoluzionismo e nel rapporto tra filosofia e scienza." Storia V, 346.
(12) "[...] demistificazione dell'assolutezza scientifica, ma anche storica e civile." Storia V, 354.
(13) "[...] abbozzo di una concezione dialettica della natura." Storia V 357.
(14) "[...] pochi saggi davvero soddisfacenti." Storia VI, 17.
(15) "[...] ogni tentazione di trasformare il materialismo storico in una filosofia della storia." Storia VI, 101.
(16) "[...] ammettono--in una forma o nell'altra--l'esistenza di un qualcosa, la realta appunto, che e irriducibile ai nostri atti conoscitivi pur venendo da essi rivelata." Scienza e realismo 7.
(17) "[...] ne come suo fedele seguace ne come continuatore." Scienza e realismo 8.
(18) "Noi non conosciamo se non questa maniera; ma parimente non conosciamo altra maniera d'essere [di perire] che quella della materia."
(19) "L'esistenza di una realta che trascende i soggetti conoscenti e cioe trascende il mondo fenomenico o mondo delle nostre percezioni in un doppio senso: perche ne sta ontologicamente alla base  e perche occorre proprio partire dalle percezioni per giungere a conoscerla ."
(20) "[...] non essendo verita assolute ma frutto di una riflessione ottenuta su determinati settori dell'esperienza" (Scienza e realismo 64).
(21) "La mente nostra non puo non solamente conoscere, ma neppur concepire alcuna cosa oltre i limiti della materia." Zib. 602.
(22) "I limiti della materia sono i limiti delle umane idee." Zib. 3341.
(23) "La materia pensante si considera come un paradosso [...]. Che la materia pensi, e un fatto. Un fatto, perche noi pensiamo; e noi non sappiamo, non conosciamo di essere, non possiamo conoscere, concepire, altro che materia. Un fatto perche noi veggiamo che le modificazioni del pensiero dipendono totalmente dalle sensazioni, dallo stato del nostro fisico; che l'animo nostro corrisponde in tutto alle varieta ed alle variazioni del nostro corpo. Un fatto, perche noi sentiamo corporalmente il pensiero: ciascun di noi sente che il pensiero non e nel suo braccio, nella sua gamba; sente che egli pensa con una parte materiale di se, cioe col suo cervello, come egli sente di vedere co'suoi occhi, di toccare colle sue mani. [...] che chi crede la materia pensante, non solo non avanza nulla di strano, di ricercato, di recondito, ma avanza una cosa ovvia, avanza quello che e dettato dalla natura, la proposizione piu naturale e piu ovvia che possa esservi in questa materia; forse le conclusioni degli uomini su tal punto sarebbero diverse da quel che sono, e i profondi filosofi  spiritualisti di questo e de' passati tempi, avrebbero ritrovato e ritroverebbero assai minor difficolta ed assurdita nel materialismo."
(24) "[...] il pieno valore conoscitivo della scienza, contro la riduzione crociana della scienza a 'pseudo-concetto'." See Minazzi and Timpanaro, "Dialogo sul materialismo" 102 and 105. The "Dialogo" was subsequently reprinted in II verde e il rosso. See also Timpanaro's La filologia di Giacomo Leopardi and Antileopardiani.
(25) "Forma di religione anche se immanente." "Dialogo" 105.
(26) "'Provvidenza', anche insita nella storia dell'uomo." "Dialogo" 105.
(27) "[...] provvidenzialistica della storia, del male come elemento negativo destinato a risolversi in un bene piu alto." "Dialogo" 105.
(28) For complete Labriola reference see note 37.
(29) "Il processo per approfondire un argomento si avvale delle vie piu diverse: ora fa ricorso all'analisi, ora alla sintesi, ora alla generalizzazione, ora alla particolarizzazione, ora ad ardite analogie ora alla ricerca di precise differenze tra casi apparentemente molto simili. Pretendere di rinchiudere tale processo entro regole fissate a priori, sarebbe impresa vana."
(30) "[...] l'unita dialettica tra teoria e prassi." Scienza e realismo 68.
(31) "[...] l'impotenza assoluta ed essenziale della ragione, non solo in ordine alla felicita umana, [...] ma alla stessa facolta di ragionare e concepire. [...] La nostra facolta di ragionare e giusta e capace del vero, quando si restringe all'ordine di cose che noi conosciamo o possiamo conoscere [...]. Io non distruggo verun principio della ragione umana [...]: solamente li converto di assoluti in relativi al nostro ordine di cose."
(32) "Tutte le verita hanno due facce diverse o contrarie, anzi infinite." Zib. 1632.
(33) "Ne la medicina, ne la fisiologia, ne la fisica, ne la chimica, ne veruna anche piu esatta e piu materiale scienza che tratti delle piu sensibili e meno astruse parti ed effetti della natura, non possono mai specificare ne calcolare nemmeno per approssimazione, se non in modo larghissimo, ne il numero ne il grado e il piu e il meno, ne tutti i rapporti ecc. delle infinite diversita di effetti che secondo le infinite combinazioni e rapporti scambievoli ecc., e influenze e passioni scambievoli ecc., risultano dalle cause anche piu semplici piu poche e limitate, che dette scienze assegnano."
(34) "Il secolo venturo probabilmente dubitera proprio di cio che in questo prendiamo per certo." Zib. 1709.
(35) "Tutt'altro che certo e perfetto anzi riconosciuto difettoso in alcune parti, per di piu che inizia a vacillare nelle scuole." Zib. 4056-57.
(36) See Leopardi's page on "giardino" in Zibaldone 4175-77.
(37) Translation slightly modified, as it appears in On Materialism 48-49. The original text reads: "Gli uomini vivendo socialmente, non cessano di vivere anche nella natura. A questa non sono certo legati come gli animali, perche vivono sopra un terreno artificiale [...]. Ma la natura e sempre il sottosuolo immediato del terreno artificiale, ed e l'ambito che tutti ci recinge. La tecnica ha messo fra noi animali sociali e la natura i modificatori, i deviatori, gli allontanatori degl'influssi naturali; ma non ha percio distrutta la efficacia di essi, e noi anzi di continuo la sentiamo. E come noi nasciamo naturalmente maschi e femmine, moriamo quasi sempre nostro malgrado, e siamo dominati dall'istinto della generazione, cosi noi portiamo anche nel temperamento condizioni specifiche, che l'educazione nel lato senso della parola, ossia l'accomodazione sociale, puo modificare si, entro certi limiti ma non puo mai distruggere. Queste condizioni di temperamento ripetute in piu esemplari, e derivatesi in piu esemplari attraverso i secoli, costituiscono cio che si chiama carattere etnico. Per tutte coteste ragioni, la nostra dipendenza dalla natura, per quanto diminuita dai tempi della preistoria in qua, si continua nel nostro vivere sociale; come in questo si continua anche l'alimento che dallo spettacolo della natura stessa viene alla curiosita ed alla fantasia" ("Del materialismo storico" 147).
(38) "Lo spirito umano fa sempre progressi, ma lenti e per gradi. Quando egli arriva a scoprire qualche gran verita che dimostri la falsita di opinioni generali e costanti, e che farebbe fare un salto a'suoi avanzamenti, il piu degli uomini ricusa di ammetterla, segue placidamente il suo viaggio, finche arriva a quella tal verita, la quale come tutte le altre di tal natura, non diventa mai comune, se non lungo tempo dopo ch'ella fu (ancorche geometricamente) dimostrata."
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